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What Network Do You Need?

An overview of the different types of networks possibilities, from peer-to-pear to client/server, and what kind of products you need to run them.

By Joe and Ron of Neighborhood Techs

Q. I need advice on how to set up a network. Should it be Client/server or Peer-to-Peer? Should it use a switch, router, or hub? Which operating system should we use: Windows 98, Windows XP or Win 2000? We currently have nine computers and run applications like MS Office, QuickBooks and 3D CAD. Any help or advice would be appreciated.

A. Implementing a network is not a trivial or inexpensive undertaking. There are numerous questions you need to ask yourself. The most important element to keep in mind when designing your network solution is to make sure that it will meet your users' current needs in addition to being easily "scalable," that is, capable of future growth.

The first thing you want to ask yourself (like you did above) is what type of network do you want to install, peer-to-peer or client/server? Typically peer-to-peer is used in very small environments with no more then 5 users. The biggest benefit to them is that you can get it up and running with remarkable little effort and minimal expense. The downside is they don't provide you with much in the way of security and resource sharing can be somewhat more problematic.

A client/server network, where multiple clients (users) connect via a computer (sometimes called a workstation) to a centralized data repository or Internet connection, offers users much more flexibility in the services they provide, data security and can be centrally managed. They are more expensive and require more skill to properly implement, but the benefits more then compensate for it.

During most installations you'll actually end up using both routers and switches. The router/firewall's WAN port gets connected to the DSL or cable modem line to provide a LAN with Internet access; while the router's LAN port gets connected to a switch that connects it to the rest of the network (i.e. servers and workstations). For small networks, most routers have switches with from three to eight ports integrated into them for simplicity. Your router/firewall and all of your servers and workstations will connect to this switch. It is the heart of the network.

The choice of operating system on both the server and workstation are also very important and must be considered carefully. On the server side you have a number of choices available to you. Novell Netware, Windows NT and Windows 2000 are all good choices, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For the type of environment you describe in your question I would go with Microsoft Small Business Server 2000 (SBS2K).

Small Business server is designed for companies with up to 50 employees and includes all of Microsoft's big server packages. It's based on Windows 2000 Server for file and print services, user management, and security, but includes other products like Microsoft Exchange for e-mail and Microsoft SQL server for databases. If you purchased these items separately they would be very expensive. Even if you don't have a need for all of these products now, you might in the future. The other nice part about SBS2K) is that most common administrative functions have been automated through Wizards. Setting up new users, printers, e-mail accounts, etc. can be performed by somebody with a minimum of IT skill.

As far as the workstations are concerned, I would recommend at least using Windows 98SE. Windows 2000 or Windows XP Professional are also good choices. If you do go with SBS2000, use Windows 2000 Professional on the workstations as opposed to Windows XP. It's been out longer, so most of the problems have been worked out and there are more resources available to help you if problems arise. While Windows XP Professional has so far been great, it is somewhat problematic when used with SBS2000 -- steer clear of it for a bit longer. Windows 98SE doesn't take advantage of some of the manageability features like Windows 2000 does and it isn't as secure.

There are numerous things you should consider when planning your network, but there are two more that I would feel remiss if I didn't mention.

Consider ways of safeguarding your data against loss or hardware failures. The two most common methods are nightly tape backups and the implementation of Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives (RAID). A RAID is designed to keep a server operational in the event of a hard drive failure. The most popular configurations of RAID are RAID-1 and RAID-5. More information on RAID can be found here.

Invest in a good anti-virus package to protect your network. Depending on the size of your network you could choose to use an anti-virus package that operates on each system independently or a product like Norton Anti-Virus Corporate Edition which can manage the rollout, virus definition updates and network scanning of the network from a central location.

This should be enough information to get you started, but consult with a good systems integrator before actually purchasing anything. It is easy to spend a lot of money on a project like this and detailed planning can be an invaluable investment.

Use our feedback form to submit your questions on home or SOHO networking issues. We can not guarantee to answer every question we get, but we'll consider them all



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